A Korean war story

Cheesy Obsession

By Farhan Muhammad


Surely, I am not the only person who has stumbled upon the spiral of South Korean street food videos on YouTube far too late into the night? If somehow you have managed to avoid the cacophony of deep fried everything, I would like to be the first person to introduce to you this:

Of course, there’s an endless amount of YouTube recommended videos to binge and write about (those two Indian guys just building random complexes for example), but to me what stood out the most was the abundance of cheese in each street food video.

East Asia is definitely not the first place to think of when it comes to Cheese consumption. Especially considering the fact the majority of its population are lactose intollerant. It is this factoid that confused me when I repeatedly saw the same processed cheese used across a plenitude of dishes. From Ramen, to fried rice to desserts. I was captivated by seemingly endless cheesy cross sections, or slow-mo cheese stretching clips.

During Korea’s civil war, many Koreans were forced to be dependant on food from US soldiers and field army kitchens. As a result, hot dogs, spam, and processed cheese became a part of the Korean culinary landscape. Of course, the dishes that were made during this time were out of pure desperation and nothing similar to regular Korean cuisine. Nonetheless, its exposure had a lasting effect that has flourished into South Korea’s cosmopolitan diet.

Despite its grim introduction to Korea, cheese has become an unlikely ingredient in culmination of foods. More importantly, cheese was seen as a great complimenting flavour to help tone down spicy dishes. Of which there are many. As a result, you can see cheese being incorporated to a very traditional Kimchi Jjigae or even cheese tteokbokki, or cheese dakgalbi and now as the quintessential topping to many street foods dishes.

However, how did processed cheese go from desperation to now being a significant part of the Korean dairy industry? In a word, crisis. From its desperate beginnings cheese was used to help subdue spicy foods; as South Korea faced economic crisis, once in 1998 and again in 2008, spicy food sales exploded.

According to this article in the Korean Times, Spicy food is a go to meal for whenever South Koreans feel stressed out. It’s no surprise that most of the spicy food challenges all come from off the shelf products in South Korea.

Spicy food has been found to alleviate stress and anxiety, and due to this effect demand for spicy food Is usually high in times of economic slowdown. -https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/tech/2019/05/694_269029.html

Budae jjigae - Korean Army Stew, this dish is the staple image of Korean Starvation during the Korean war in the 1950s, whilst this obviously is more of an appetising version, the original version was made with whatever coukld be found from a US military base. Perhaps this army stw would be the very first in American fusion dishes

It was a match made in heaven; adding cheese onto spicy dishes meant that people could eat more before tapping out from a spice overload. It’s no surprise that an entire cheese-themed theme park exists only in South Korea, boasting 32 acres of cheesy paraphernalia.

Despite its longevity, this increase in cheese consumption is primarily fixated on mozzarella and processed sliced cheese. Some articles speculate this is due to their neutral smells and their compatibility with Korean dishes. Nonetheless to help keep up with the growing demand, The Korean Dairy Industry was developed in 1974. This increased the total milk market and brought introduced high milk producing cattle to South Korea. This not only helped cheese production, but even ice cream.

In summary, despite its destitute beginnings the increase in importation of foreign products is an apt representation for South Korea’s rapid economic growth. Its changes in policy reform to help open the country to foreign markets has made way for its media, food and fashion to be exported on a global scale and lets South Korea sit as one of the richest countries in East Asia.

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